Lost in the Archive: Vision, Artefact and Loss in the Evolution of Hypertext

Critical Writing
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2004
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This dissertation offers a history of hypertext, and does not reference any creative works of electronic literature. It has many references to critical writing that is important in the study of electronic literature. The following is the author's abstract: ---

How does one write the history of a technical machine? Can we say that technical machines have their own genealogies, their own evolutionary dynamic? The technical artefact constitutes a series of objects, a lineage or a line. At a cursory level, we can see this in the fact that technical machines come in generations - they adapt and adopt characteristics over time, one suppressing the other as it becomes obsolete. It is argued that technics has its own evolutionary dynamic, and that this dynamic stems neither from biology nor from human societies. Yet 'it is impossible to deny the role of human thought in the creation of technical artefacts' (Guattari 1995, p. 37). Stones do not automatically rise up into a wall - humans 'invent' technical objects. This, then, raises the question of technical memory. Is it humans that remember previous generations of machines and transfer their characteristics to new machines? If so, how and where do they remember them? It is suggested that humans learn techniques from technical artefacts, and transfer these between machines. This theory of technical evolution is then used to understand the genealogy of hypertext. The historical differentiations of hypertext in different technical systems is traced. Hypertext is defined as both a technical artefact and also a set of techniques: both are a part of this third milieu, technics. The difference between technical artefact and technical vision is highlighted, and it is suggested that technique and vision change when they are externalised as material artefact. The primary technique traced is association, the organisational principle behind the hypertext systems explored in the manuscript. In conclusion, invention is shown to be an act of exhumation, the transfer and retroactiviation of techniques from the past. This thesis presents an argument for a new model of technical evolution, a model which claims that technics constitutes its own dynamic, and that this dynamic exceeds human evolution. It traces the genealogy of hypertext as a set of techniques and as series of material artefacts. To create this geneaology I draw on interviews conducted with Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson and Andries van Dam, as well as a wide variety of primary and secondary resources.

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Patricia Tomaszek